Anne is a psychiatrist who went through residency with Frank Briggs and visited him once in Ewing Falls, Nebraska. They had dated for six months but are now no longer a couple. Like Frank, Anne was trained in “biological psychiatry”; unlike him, she does not question this drug-based method for treating mental illness.
Dr. Frank Briggs
Frank Briggs, age thirty-two, is a new psychiatrist, having completed his residency just one year before this story begins. Now he is about to enter his second of three years as a volunteer with the National Health Service Corps, an agreement which entails his working in an underserved area in exchange for his medical school loans being repaid by the organization. Frank’s immediate predicament is that the Congress has cut funds to the service, and while he is committed to this work contract, he is disheartened to know his medical school debt will not be paid as he anticipated. Frank does not believe in the current practice of relying mostly on medication to treat psychiatric conditions. He believes that patients seek “someone to acknowledge what they [are] experiencing.” His ex-girlfriend Anne accuses him of “clinging to an old myth about the value of talk.” Intuitive and sensitive, Frank feels “like a sponge, absorbing the pain of the people he listen[s] to.”
Jack Buckholdt grew up in northeast Nebraska, married, got a house, a job at the bank, and for years harbored dreams of moving to California and owning a house with a view of the ocean. He told his wife they would someday have an orange tree in their yard and museums nearby for her to enjoy. Instead, the couple lived in the barren northeast Nebraska prairie, they had three children, Jack had his work at the bank, and years passed. Financial hard times hit, property was foreclosed, and Jack took up drinking. Now he is an unemployed alcoholic with liver disease, living in a broken-down house out in the middle of nowhere.
First son of Mr. and Mrs. Buckholdt, Jason was his mother’s hope for escape from the culture-starved Nebraska landscape where they live. Before puberty, Jason was willing to be schooled by his mother in art and to study the violin, but in his teens, he resented the mockery of his classmates, and with Jimmy Green, he became addicted to methamphetamine. Strung out on lack of sleep, he sunk into a psychotic state, and attacked his mother with a knife. Days later, Jason and Jimmy borrowed a friend’s truck and crashed it into a wall of an overpass on the interstate highway. Jason died in the accident; Jimmy Green survived with burns.
The middle child of the Buckholdts’ three children, this boy sits in the kitchen watching television with the sound off while Dr. Briggs interviews Mrs. Buckholdt. The boy is unresponsive when Dr. Briggs goes into the kitchen and speaks to him and seemingly acquiescent to Mrs. Buckholdt’s confining him in the kitchen behind a locked door. When the doctor is about to leave, the son asks his mother’s permission to leave the kitchen, and then he goes upstairs to get ready to go to his music lesson. The son’s impassive acquiescence suggests he is also traumatized by Jason’s attack and perhaps alienated too by the emotional absence of his depressive mother.
Mrs. Buckholdt, age forty-four, is the mother of three children. She and her husband, Jack, live in a run-down place in northeast Nebraska near Ewing Falls. As a young woman, Mrs. Buckholdt attended college in the East, where she studied art history. After her junior year, she returned home to Nebraska. She married Jack Buckholdt, believing in his dream of their moving to California as soon as they had the money. Years accumulated, and the dream was lost. Mrs. Buckholdt suffers from depression as a result of the death of their first son, Jason. She also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from Jason’s attack, in which he cut off the fingers on her right hand. Now she manages to provide minimally for her two younger children, but she needs a prescription for a sedative to get through some days. Though she is resigned to her meaningless life, Mrs. Buckholdt thinks about art and cultured places out East where she once went to college and saw for herself how other people are able to live.
The Buckholdts’ daughter appears in the driveway when the doctor knocks at the door, but she does not respond to his greeting. Frank describes her as looking “eight or nine, but her rigid mouth and narrowed eyes [suggest] someone older.” Explaining why she does not respond to the doctor, Jack Buckholdt says, “She ain’t a bigger talker.” The daughter is disconnected from the family: she stands in the driveway doing nothing. There is no place to play in this dirty yard, and the sign on the barn prohibits her from going in there: “Girls Allowed”
Jimmy Green is Jason Buckholdt’s high school friend. The two get involved with methamphetamine, borrow a truck from a friend, and crash it into the wall of an overpass on the interstate highway. Jimmy survives the accident and lives in the area. Mrs. Buckholdt remarks that she sees him every once in awhile.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Adam Haslett, Published by Gale Group, 2006